Updated: Apr 25
We’ve all experienced the dreaded onset of a leg muscle cramp or “Charley horse” at some point, whether during high-intensity exercise or seizing up suddenly on the couch. Especially with the summer heat waves and humidity ramping up now in the PNW, muscle cramps, and spasms are much more common. Muscle cramps can range from annoying to downright painful and can cause a muscle to be very sore and tender for days after. We want to share some tips and tricks on how to prevent this from happening and how to exercise safely in the summer temperatures!
How To Prevent Leg Cramps
1. Stay Hydrated
The most obvious and common cause of muscle cramps and spasms is dehydration. We’ve all heard a friend, a trainer, or a colleague tell us to “drink more water” at some point in our lives, but how much water exactly is enough? Most experts agree that for healthy adults we should all be striving to drink at least 4-6 cups per day (48-64 oz). However, if you exercise frequently outside or have a manual labor profession outdoors, you may need more cups per day than recommended. Try tracking your fluid intake of water (coffee and energy drinks do not count), and you may be surprised that you are getting a lot less than you think. Everyone has different needs, including water intake, so see what works for you, and even check with your doctor if you're not sure!
2. Replenish Electrolytes
Are sports drinks necessary for optimal hydration? Not necessarily. If you are engaging in light/moderate exercise for less than 60 minutes, drinking enough water, and have a balanced diet, electrolyte drinks may not be necessary, however, there are exceptions. An instance in which you may need to replenish electrolytes is if you are participating in high-intensity exercise for more than 45-60 minutes, then having an electrolyte drink can help replenish lost minerals in the sweat. Make sure to avoid sports drinks that have loads of sugars and high fructose corn syrups, which won’t help with hydration at all.
3. Stretch Consistently
Excessive muscle tightness can also make you more prone to cramping during and after activity. If a muscle is already very “taut” and has relatively poor mobility, exercising at higher intensities can lead to the “Charley horse” sensation, which is essentially a muscle being unable to relax. Having a more regular and consistent lower body stretching routine, especially before and after your choice of exercise, can help to prevent muscle spasms.
4. Strengthen Muscles
Exercising in the heat and humidity definitely taxes the heart, lungs, and muscles more than indoors. Whether you are jogging or cycling, the large quad, glutes, and calf muscles need to have adequate strength and endurance to be resilient in the heat. Once muscles have reached their point of fatigue and lack of energy output, they can become more prone to cramping if pushed too far. Making sure to have a regular strengthening and resistance training program 2-3x/week can make muscles more resilient and less prone to spasms.
5. Get Your Bloodwork Checked
Muscle cramps and spasms are very common and a normal side effect of working out and exercising out in the heat. However, if you note that you are having very frequent cramps and muscle knots even when you are not exerting yourself and stretching does not seem to help, consider having your blood work checked. There are so many micronutrients in the blood such as iron, sodium, potassium, and magnesium as well as countless vitamins that need to be in a perfect balance for optimal muscle health and performance. If you are having consistent lower leg pain and cramping, it may be beneficial to talk to your doctor about having a regular check-up visit.
How To Relieve Leg Cramp Pain
Although there are a few things mentioned above to prevent leg cramps, what can you do to relieve the pain if they keep happening?
A few methods to stop leg cramps in their tracks include:
Stretch. Straighten the affected leg and flex your toes to induce a calf stretch.
Elevate. Find something to rest your leg on to improve blood flow.
Massage. Massaging the cramp can help to get rid of it quicker.
Heat. Applying a heating pad to the leg can relax the muscles.
Move. Standing up and walking can increase circulation and reduce pain.
Interested in Physical Therapy?
If you're dealing with daily aches and pains, have an injury, or want to perform better in athletic activities, schedule an evaluation today! Rehab United is committed to your recovery, treating the root cause of your condition, so you can get back to feeling like yourself again.
Chris Cheek, PT, DPT, CSCS, is a physical therapist who received his Doctorate of Physical Therapy at the University of Florida. Chris is also well-versed in programming for high-level athletics and sport as he obtained his Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) certification through the NSCA.